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An argument over lasagne


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Having made a discovery, historians and researchers then release the information; some write for journals, others produce a book while a few add some national stereotypes and create a media furore. I don't wish to cast aspersions on Maurice Bacon and his team, but there must have been a better way to announce his discovery regarding Richard II and lasagne.

The basic claim made by Mr. Bacon is both interesting and eminently true. While researching historically accurate meals for a medieval banquet to be staged at Berkeley Castle, the team found a recipe for 'loseyns' in an 'old' cookbook. (The text in question, the Forme of Cury, is often cited as the world's oldest surviving recipe book, having been commissioned by Britain's Richard II c.1390). Loseyns was pronounced lasan and involved laying flat sheets of pasta separated by a cheese sauce. The similarity to lasagne, which also involves flat sheets of pasta and cheese sauce, is clear, although tomatoes weren't mentioned. The historians have an explanation for this: Britain didn't start regularly importing tomatoes for another 200 years.

So far, so good: the medieval diet of Britain included a pasta dish resembling lasagne, the recipe for which was codified c.1390. Unfortunately, this is where Mr. Bacon's announcement began to err, for he also claimed this as proof that Britain invented lasagne, that traditionally Italian dish. British newspapers were quick to pick the story up (after all, there's nothing the media like more than having a go at 'foreigners') and most quoted Bacon as saying "Very few people know lasagne was created in England. I defy anyone to disprove it because it appeared in the first cookery book ever written." Within 24 hours reporters had quizzed leading Italian chefs and critics who reacted with bemusement, and the Italian Embassy who issued a denial.

As a dispiriting argument over national 'ownership' emerged - although I should stress, everyone seemed to take it in good humour - Mr. Bacon's challenge was met. Medieval historians were able to produce ample Italian references to lasagne before 1390, including a study by Iris Origo which cites the documents of Francesco di Marco Datini, who mentioned lasagne by name, and a cookbook (libro di cucina) predating the Forme of Cury. In addition, records from Genoa between 1316 and 1329 mention a producer of lasagna called Maria Borgogno. None of this proves that Italy - or anywhere else - invented lasagne, but it certainly shatters the central crux of Bacon's flawed argument.

However, the air was filled with national 'pride' and most commentators suggested how Italian lasagne recipes could have reached Britain, from where they were adapted to fit the available ingredients. Travelling wool merchants were a favourite, although the Romans were also mentioned. Oddly, none of these commentators offered an alternative origin for lasagne, nor did they refuted the obvious comeback: if travelling merchants could take an Italian recipe to Britain, they could certainly take a British one back to Italy.

The results of this affir included an interesting note on medieval cooking in Britain, massive promotion for Berkeley Castle and its banquet, a petty spat between two countries and increased lasagne sales (probably). The affair was certainly entertaining, but hardly edifying.

Citation And Footnotes:

Title: An argument over lasagne
Author: Robert Wilde
Date: 2003

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